Beatifying Patricia Lockwood: “I Worry That She Hasn’t Had Enough Fun.”

Mary Gordon Tries to Understand Literary Hagiography

She could be my daughter. She is in fact two years younger than my daughter. I know she is a genius, but I’m not sure what kind.

But she could never be my daughter. We are a different species. Her habitat is the internet; it reared her, nurtured her; she can’t wait to get back if she’s away. Whereas I find it mostly an intrusion or an irrelevance, useful for tracking sales on shoes I covet but can’t afford, or to look up things that I’m ashamed not to know, so ashamed that to look them up in a book would make them more real than I could bear.

The word, or concept, “portal” is important to her, central to her new novel.

I don’t know what a portal is.

*

She has freed me from the nagging worry about relevance, because, reading her, I know I am entirely irrelevant, nearly extinct or saved from extinction by some kind conservationists who allow me to graze on austere pastures.

I find her writing thrilling, although I often don’t understand it; I can go along, fine, and then there’s a sentence that I just don’t get, as if a movie I’d been watching switched in the middle to German.

But there are real affinities. Catholicism, obviously. That whatever our differences, we both know immediately what a monstrance is, and how to say the rosary.

The way she was raised Catholic had, from its outset, something of the absurd. Her father, a priest?

Mine was all about being serious, and this is what I treasure to this day. Taking things seriously.

She has freed me from the nagging worry about relevance, because, reading her, I know I am entirely irrelevant.

I was a serious child.

I am sure she was a serious child.

Although there are things about the Church that I love to laugh at. A saint who was canonized because she allowed herself to be imprisoned in a closet rather than convert, the limitations of her space resulting in her body assuming the shape of a barrel. She became the patron saint of barrel makers. St. Clare is the patron saint of television because when she was confined to her bed the Mass was projected on her wall. Some stories about my mother, saying, to the horror of my English then husband, “Guess what I just did. I kissed Mother Seton’s thumb.” Mother Seton, I had to tell him, had been dead for over a century. And her response to John F. Kennedy, “I’m going to vote for him, although he’s a pinko because you have to say if he had to press the red button, he’d have the inspiration of the holy ghost.”

Our crazy mothers, both of whom encouraged us as writers, although they would never have read the kinds of things we wrote if we weren’t their daughters.

I don’t know if my mother ever read anything I wrote. Certainly, we never talked about it.

My mother typing up my poems,

Sending one to Pope John XXIII when I was 11.

I got back a form thank you, but the postmark was the Vatican.

My mother was so often angry at me. Her mother seems never to have been angry at her.

Once, when I was getting a deep massage, I heard my dead mother’s voice saying “Anger has made you an idiot.”

My mother and I liked to laugh.

We liked to laugh at the people in the pews around us at Mass.

But I can’t laugh at the Gospels, because the way I live my live is based on them.

I can’t laugh at the Beatitudes.

At Jesus on the Cross… any blasphemy involving Jesus on the Cross upsets me.

Though I’m glad at most other kinds of blasphemy.

*

One of her first poems was about Jesus having sex with mermaids.

And I want to tell her, you know that essay you wrote about Updike. I wrote the same thing in 1991. But shorter, and there was nothing about myself in it.

When I don’t like her, I feel she’s sending endless selfies out into the world.

*

And I hate the word cum.

But what would a better word be, ejaculate?

I don’t like writing that thinks shit is comic.

I don’t even like Rabelais.

She is sympathetic to a man who projects his balls as background for his portal entries.

I find this incomprehensible.

*

Bodies are for her strange or grotesque.

Reading her memoir, I think of Nancy Mitford’s semi-autobiographical novels. Making comedy of her father’s xenophobia, homophobia. One of Mitford’s sisters dated Hitler. Another was married to the head of the British Fascist party.

But none of that is in The Pursuit of Love or Love in a Cold Climate, which I adore. I wouldn’t want it to be.

But they are fiction. Priestdaddy is not.

Our fathers.

My father was crazy too. But wasn’t a priest. I keep thinking of the people listening to her father’s sermons, Weren’t they hurt?

He didn’t let her go to college, because he had squandered her college money.

Everything that I like about my life began when I went to college.

But for her as a writer, it was probably good that she didn’t go. She doesn’t have any of the weaknesses of the autodidact. She knew what to read and what would be of use to her.

But the thrill of being at Barnard when I was 18, of being in real life, real life not Catholic life—I wish she could have had that.

The ethical does not seem to be of much interest to Patricia.

I worry that she hasn’t had enough fun.

But what a nice husband she met online.

I had two husbands, one good, one bad. I met the good one at a party; the bad one picked me up in a post office.

And there seem to have been friends in Savannah,

And the online friends that paid for her husband’s operation.

But I can’t forgive her father for spending the college money.

And what about his right to life activity? Abortion is close to being illegal because of people like her father. What about the women who will die from botched abortions?

She claims to be pro abortion,

But I am very much afraid that her New Yorker story, “The Winged Thing,” an excerpt from her novel No One is Talking about This will be hijacked by the right to lifers. It is centered around the discovery that her sister is carrying a baby with Proteus syndrome, resulting in multiple afflictions, a body out of proportion, almost otherworldly, a life measured in days and months.

The ethical does not seem to be of much interest to Patricia.

But perhaps her avoidance of ethical possibilities is a sign of a despair greater than mine. Partly situational, partly generational. I admired my father; I never thought of him as absurd. And my generation believed that change was possible, both in the world and in ourselves. We had a kind of hope that this generation cannot possibly have.

*

Her account of her niece’s birth and death raises the most profound questions. What is it to be human? What kind of life is worth living.

I want to ask her “What do you think constitutes a well lived life?”

But I’m afraid she’d find the questions ridiculous.

*

There is so much I’d like to ask her, and then I get the chance. She is willing to have a conversation with me. A conversation or an interview?

This is very kind of her, because I’m sure she’s feeling overwhelmed; everyone wants a piece of her, and I can only imagine that she’s exhausted. I remember that feeling: being asked the same questions over and over by interviewers, feeling your voice come out of your mouth, but it seems like not your mouth, but the mouth of some other creature who came into being for the sole purpose of being interviewed, some creature who lives on another planet, which is not your real home.

She is friendly and gracious. We talk on the phone for over an hour.

We begin with our shared identity as Catholic girls. Mary and Patricia. We acknowledge, somewhat to our shame, that we were both good little girls. Obedient. No trouble.

She uses the word “docile” to describe herself, to explain why she didn’t fight her father when he said she couldn’t go to college. She was a good Catholic girl, and she believed that what she was told was the right thing. She simply accepted it and took to the internet as her university; he now thinks this was a better solution because learning alone was probably a better way for her than interacting with other people, with whom she was quite uncomfortable, because she was in many ways disconnected from her own body.

I think Patricia at 18 was more fearful than Mary at 18.

I wonder what she thinks of me, what she says to her husband about me when we hang up. I imagine she thinks of me as someone who doesn’t know “what’s what”

I remember walking from a classroom on an autumn afternoon, my body humming with the excitement of having discovered the poetry of George Herbert. The sharp yellow of the October leaves, the first chill of the season, the cobalt sky.

By the time I was a teenager, I could no longer describe myself as docile. I was more like Rilke’s panther, pacing the length of my cage. I knew I had to get out; to be the kind of person I knew I wanted to be, I had to escape the Catholic cage. So when my mother said I could only go to a Catholic college, I ran away and hid in my friends basement, sneaking out to the rectory, enlisting the help of a young priest, a kind of angel. He spoke to my mother and convinced her to let me go to Barnard.

Two years later, he left the priesthood to marry.

I got to go to the college I wanted because of a priest who left to marry.

She got kept back from college by her father, a priest, who was allowed to be a priest while already married.

*

I assume that like me, she was a prayerful child. Yes, she says, she was, and I ask if anything has taken the place of those old prayers.

“Words,” she says, “I enter the cathedral of words.”

The transcendent, she says, is a still high space and she feels most close to the transcendence of her childhood when she is writing literary criticism, when she loses herself in something larger than herself.

Can she find that in the portal? I ask.

No, she says, in the portal you just go down and down and there is no end to going down.

Stillness.

Slowness.

Endless mobility.

Endless fluidity.

The great achievement of No One is Talking about This is her mastery of opposing velocities: the swirling fragments of portal life and the radical stillness required when she leaves the portal and shows up in the flesh to help care for the radically other flesh of her fragile niece, whose life must be protected by slow, painstaking observation, quiet movements, deliberate gestures.

She abandons the swirl of the portal for the silence of the NICU.

I ask if she felt different about life in the portal after the experience of the life and death of her niece.

Yes, she said, but she didn’t want to abandon it. It was a different life. A life shared and lived among others. She says she likes being part of the herd.

Her other family.

Her home away from home.

I can’t imagine being part of a herd as in any way desirable.

I wonder what she thinks of me, what she says to her husband about me when we hang up. I imagine she thinks of me as someone who doesn’t know “what’s what”

A question that might please both of us, “What’s what?”

Mary Gordon
Mary Gordon
Mary Gordon is the author of nine novels, including There Your Heart Lies, The Company of Women, and The Love of My Youth; six works of nonfiction, including Joan of Arc: A Life and the memoirs The Shadow Man and Circling My Mother; and three collections of short fiction, including The Stories of Mary Gordon, which was awarded the Story Prize. She has received many other honors, including a Lila Wallace–Reader’s Digest Writers’ Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and an Academy Award for Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She taught at Barnard College until her retirement and lives in New York City.





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